The U.S. Marine Corps has undertaken its final mission with the Textron RQ-7B Shadow unmanned aircraft system (UAS) as the force transitions to the Insitu RQ-21A Blackjack. The final Shadow launch took place on July 29 from Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, home base of Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron Three (VMU-3). The mission was launched in support of the major multinational naval exercise RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific).
“We have employed this aircraft [RQ-7B Shadow] to the maximum extent of its capabilities in combat, with great effect,” noted VMU-3’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Peter Ban. “As we look to the future, we intend to do the same with the Blackjack and leverage the expeditionary nature of the system to provide support anywhere in the world.”
VMU-3 “Phantoms” was the final user of the Shadow within the Corps, having operated the Shadow since September 2008. VMU-4 “Evil Eyes” at Camp Pendleton, California, undertook its last Shadow flight on December 11 last year during the Steel Knight exercise at Twentynine Palms, California.
Developed from the RQ-2 Pioneer by AAI, the RQ-7A Shadow 200 first flew in 1991. It entered U.S. Army service in 2002 and was subsequently procured by the Marine Corps to replace the RQ-2 from 2007. Export customers include Australia and France.
In Marine service the type equipped four tactical UAS squadrons, VMU-1 being the first to see action when it was deployed to Iraq in October 2007. VMU-2 deployed to Afghanistan in 2009. Marine units flew around 39,000 hours with the Shadow during 11 operational deployments.
Operated by a two-person crew, the Shadow was used for battlefield surveillance missions in support of Marine and other ground forces. The UAS supported artillery units with target detection and fire correction and also provided force protection support. The type was deployed to the Philippines in 2017 to hunt ISIS forces.
The principal model was the RQ-7B, which was produced from 2004. Compared with the RQ-7A, the new version had longer wings, which also housed fuel. This gave the RQ-7B an endurance of over six hours and increased payload capability. The standard payload in recent years was the IAI Tamam POP300D sensor/laser designator turret.
Whereas the Shadow was an Army-managed program, the incoming Blackjack is a Navy/Marine project that has also received orders from Canada, the Netherlands, and Poland, plus an unnamed Middle East nation. The RQ-21A was first deployed by the Marine Corps to Afghanistan in 2014, which has been flying the type intensively during Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq/Syria since 2016